I went back to England in the summer of 1994 to commemorate the first anniversary of my dad's death. On the way from London to our family reunion in Edinburgh, I stopped to visit an old friend, whom I had known since our undergraduate days in the early 1960s. Despite his professional success, Roger was suffering from long bouts of deep depression, punctuated with sighs and proclamations of uselessness. At his lovely, quayside flat in Liverpool I found books on wills casually left on his desk and manic-depressive art on the walls. He had even scripted out his own self-inflicted death, which, he hoped, would be considered an accident so as to spare his children any embarrassment. Only an English, Protestant chap, trained at a minor private school and Oxford could be concerned with the etiquette of suicide.
I was worried until he cooked up a meal of garlicky gazpacho, a rare leg of lamb cooked with crushed red currants, buttery slices of eggplant fried Greek-style in a batter of flour and ouzo, and a desert of plums slathered in cinnamon cream. It was a sumptuous dinner, filled with pleasure and creativity, far too subtle and generous for somebody who had decided to say no to life. Not too long after, he remarried and started a new family.
Having just hit the big 50, matters of life and death were on my mind. My then law school daughter was bugging me to write a will and a student doing her thesis on living wills had told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to address the issue of how I want to die. Should any extraordinary measures be taken to sustain my life when I'm hanging by a thread in hospital? When is life no longer worth living? Do I need insurance for long-term care if I'm incontinent or incompetent or both so that my kids' inheritance doesn't go for bedpans and feeding tubes?
It took me years to make these decisions, but I was clear on one thing: you have my permission to take me out and shoot me when I no longer have any taste. I'm not talking aesthetics here. That'd be a loss, but I could manage with cable. It's the physical, mouth-chewing, swallowing kind of taste I'm talking about: crusty baguettes with sweet butter, oysters on the shell with vinegary shallots, rare prime rib with mashed potatoes and freshly grated horseradish, creamy risotto with fresh mushrooms, crème caramel topped with burned sugar. That kind of taste. Once I lose my hankering for, say, a frozen Snickers bar at the movies, you'll know I'm close to the end of the line. Last stop coming up, the terminal.
"She doesn't have a yen for anything any more," my mum told me in 1996. "I can't tempt her. She used to like a drink or a bit of chocolate. It's very sad really to see her losing her taste." My mother was talking about her mother Edith, my grandmother who had just suffered a stroke and was dying. Slowly, without appetite, after living for so many of her one hundred years with the sharpest tongue in our extended, scattered family.
I know how mum felt. I felt the same with my dad when he was in his last year of a slow cancer death. He had always loved food and fancied himself quite a restaurant connoisseur. Never cooked for himself until he was living alone in London in his last years, and even then his repertoire was pretty thin. He could fry or boil an egg, and he could make an exquisite salmon dish. He steamed it whole over a bouillon of fish broth and vegetables, just as my mother, his ex-wife, had done for years when they were married. Mum served it with small, steamed new potatoes and fresh peas or asparagus. But the key component – which dad once asked me to get secretly from her many years after they were divorced – was mum's sweet and sour sauce, made simply and fast from a whisked mixture of egg yolks, sugar, and lemon juice. The yin-yangness works so well against the salmon's lush meat and the bland delicacy of the potatoes. You need something pretty bold if you're going to go up against salmon.
Sweet and Sour Sauce
4 egg yolks
Juice of 2 lemons
Tablespoon of sugar
Beat all the ingredients in pan on stove,
Very low light, until thickened.
The low light's important. Don't stop stirring.
If it's too thick, add juices from the salmon
Until you get it the way you want it.
What I like about this recipe, aside from its simplicity and ability to impress guests who think homemade sauces separate a chef from a cook, is its encouraging tone and room for personal variations. My mother, unlike her mother, tried to demystify cooking. She communicated her recipes according to the conventions of modernity: amounts, numbers, timing were not anathema to her. My Grandma Daniels, the one hundred year-old Jewish-Roumanian immigrant who came to Manchester, the textile center of northern England, when she was a young girl, was another matter. It took years before she was willing to pass on her culinary knowledge to her first-born grandson (who, like her, left home for distant shores, in 1963, before I knew what was what) because in her world men stayed out of the kitchen (and the bedroom too, if she’d had her way).
But, being a seasoned pragmatist, Edith conceded when she had to. She knew when to give up and move on. After her only son left his wife for another man, she had to modify her homophobia, and she did. She grew up a staunch racist, hating all "schwartzes" but never knowing one, until the Caribbean-black cooks at the fancy Jewish retirement home she lived in during her last years adopted her recipe for chicken soup. Last time I went to visit her, she called out a cook to meet me and there they stood, the Jamaican and the Jew, arms around each other.
So, after a while, Grandma gave in and started giving me her recipes, if you can call them that. I'm not an essentialist, but I do believe that some people are more talented than others. I think of myself as a solidly good cook now, something I tried to pass on to my kids (my daughter’s first husband was a cook and my son went to a culinary academy for a year). My mother, from whom I learned most of my skills and strategy, was very accomplished, with a nose for the tempo of cooking. But my grandmother, who taught my mother how to cook (even cooked for her during the first year of my parents' marriage, both of them keeping it a secret from my dad), my Grandma Daniels was an artiste. Since it was very hard for her to write in English – she could barely write her name, though until her eyesight faded she read quite fluently – I sat, listened, and took notes in the tradition of oral history, as I had been trained to do.
Her instructions were always given theatrically, with animated facial gestures, gesticulating arms, and arguments with my mother (who was usually present) over amounts and times. A short recipe might take thirty minutes easily, if you included all the fascinating detours through regional variations and evocations of celebrated meals. The drama was important to me because I was as much interested in the historical context of, say, borscht with boiled potatoes as I was in how to stop the soup from curdling. Another four years and her life, since her conception in 1893, would have spanned the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Her recipes were always deceptively simple and the ingredients quite common. She learned her craft as a tenacious immigrant who had to excavate taste from unlikely sources. Take her recipe for green beans, named by my mother with a lovely sense of irony:
Haricots Verts à la Roumanian
Green beans, fresh or can
Lots of pepper
Water from beans
Put some flour in a frying pan and cook it until it's brown,
Cook beans or open can of beans.
Mix together the brown flour, some water from the beans,
some sugar and pepper, lots of pepper.
Put the beans and everything else in casserole dish,
Cook in a low oven for several hours.
The longer the better.
Add butter before serving.
I can't give you the exact amounts. You'll have to experiment like I did. "A handful of flour, a pinch of salt," she'd shout at me like I was a foreigner, clenching her fist to show me the amount. "Salt?" I'd ask, "You didn't mention salt in the ingredients." She threw her hands up in mock disgust and looked away. "Salt? Of course, salt. Always a little salt." After I'd experimented with the dish a few times, and ended up with something that resembled what I remembered from my 20s, I realized that her craft was about mixing, balancing, and tasting, just like a creative actor who knows the basic discipline but is not afraid to improvise. The end result can be quite stunning. When the dish works well, the beans and sauce become one, velvety and sensual, the peppery sugar an unexpected finish. It’s great with lamb or a dense fish like halibut. My mother would also occasionally serve it as a starter so that the taste got undivided attention, sharpening our appetites for the next course.
My mother and her mother preferred strong, rich flavors that left no doubt about their authority. The subtlety was in the construction, rarely the taste. Later in life, as my parents became more bourgeoisified and my mother more influenced by the cosmopolitan tastes of the Continent, especially classic French cuisine, we'd eat more refined meals. But mum never abandoned her peasant roots or her love of my Grandma's basic ingredients: fat and sugar. As a teen I learned little tricks about how to give ordinary food little booster shots, like my grandmother's luxurious chocolate meringues whose secret I later learned was the cheapest kind of instant coffee. A quick, tasty lunch, for example, could be Buck Rarebit (a Welsh Rarebit or Grilled Cheese with an egg on top), followed by Mashed Bananas.
Sharp cheese, cheddar or Lancashire
Milk, two eggs, butter, white bread, beer
Grate the cheese and mix with milk, one egg, salt and pepper.
Add some beer if you want to give it a bite.
Toast bread lightly, put mixture on toast and grill till puffy brown.
Fry egg in butter and serve on top of grilled cheese.
Mash two very ripe bananas with sugar and cream
When I was a child, the cream usually came from the top of the milk, a two-inch delight that was much sought after in my family. "Yum yum, pig's bum," we'd say in the idiom of working class, rhyming slang. The mashed bananas were a special favorite because they doubled as dessert and a plaything that could be squished between the teeth and drooled like baby food. I'd still enjoy a meal of these two dishes because their flavors are so firmly locked into my memory bank, just like MacDonald's fries were already the potato of choice for my grandson David by the time he was four years old.
A few years ago, my brother, sister and I traveled home from the far ends of the earth -- Scotland, Israel, and California -- to organize a party for mum's 70th birthday. To celebrate the rare reunion, she made the three of us a traditional Jewish Friday night dinner, with a main course of roast chicken after we had plowed through a groaning table of hors d'oeuvre and chicken soup with matzoh balls. The chicken tasted like dessert (my mother claimed the recipe doesn't include sugar, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt). Here's why.
Friday Night Chicken
Stick cloves of garlic under the skin of a whole chicken.
Roast the chicken at a very high heat for about 30 minutes,
Hot enough for the fat to drip into the pan.
Take out the chicken and remove the fat.
Mix the hot chicken fat with spoonfuls of cold chicken fat
(You can buy "schmaltz" in the store in bottles),
Paprika, onions, salt and pepper. Lots of salt.
Pour the mixture over the chicken and cook slowly,
At low heat, occasionally basting the chicken with its juices.
Fortunately, mum didn’t give us the recipe until after we'd finished our seconds, when we took a moment to clutch our hearts. Clogging of arteries was not something she worried about, unlike my middle-class contemporaries who by comparison seem overly obsessive on the topic of healthy diets. All the things that we think hasten our demise -- such as animal fat and white sugar -- were the stuff of life to her generation. Meat equals protein, the more of it the better, the fatter and richer the better.
My grandmother who cooked so wonderfully because she could taste the end result long before it was finished, both in her mouth and imagination, ended life with only the flavor of her own mortality. But food was on her mind even in her last days when she lay sleeping around the clock, kept alive by a fierce will and intravenous liquids. Rousing herself briefly from her dreams, she recognized and asked her daughter, "Are you staying for lunch?"
In 1993, when I went to look after my dad a few weeks before he died, I did everything I could to spark his pleasures. All the things that he used to love – like strolling on London’s Hampstead Heath, arguing politics, or playing cut-throat chess not very well – he now found too much effort, and all the things that he used to hate passionately – like physical dependency and watching endless television – had become what was left of his life. While I knew that I was there to help him into death, this was not the easiest thing for me to do. He was the first person whose intimate end I witnessed. For fifty plus years of my life I had managed to avoid the messy details of dying. So while I tried to ease his passing, I also tried to keep him alive with taste treats.
I made elaborate dishes, recreated family menus, and went off to obscure ethnic neighborhoods and chi-chi London department stores in search of his favorites -- chocolate-covered gingers, Cadbury's milk chocolate with fruit and nuts, pickled herrings with onions, smoked salmon on dark rye bread. I even made eggplant for him the way my mother made it, based, she claimed, on my grandmother's recipe, but I find it hard to imagine the Jews of nineteenth-century eastern Europe doing it this way. In England, the French word is used for the purple-black vegetable, making it even more exotic. In our family we only ate it this one way, as an appetizer:
2 or 3 medium-sized eggplants
Onion chopped very fine
Cucumber or radishes, parsley
Roast the eggplants over an open flame
Until all the skin is burned black.
Remove skin and chop up the eggplant with onions and oil.
Salt and pepper to taste, lots of salt.
Serve cold on large circular plate edged with cucumber slices or radishes,
Sprinkled with parsley.
Serve with a good fresh dark bread.
Of course there are other ways to cook eggplants. You can roast them in the oven, then cover with a cloth until the skin sweats off. Much less work. But there's something very dramatic about the sight and smell of fiery eggplants blackening on the top of the stove. And the smokiness adds an interesting flavor that you just don't get any other way. It's a hell of a mess to clean up but, when I have time, I like to make it this way so that taste and memory become one.
Dad showed polite interest in all my offerings but preferred a cocktail of straight scotch with his morphine. And near the end, unthinkable of a man who never went through one day without at least a couple of stiff drinks, he refused liquor, even French champagne or the very best cognac. "No taste," he said, about three weeks before he died.
Earlier, before he abandoned food, I'd written to him about the benefits of smoking grass. I told him that it would help to cut out some of the nausea caused by chemo and make food interesting again. As he had no moral objections to the personal use of any kind of drug, legal or otherwise, and was by now grasping for any straw, no matter how thin, he welcomed my suggestion and asked a journalist friend to procure him a lid of grass, hoping that it would revive all his flagging appetites. A few weeks later, I visited him in London and found him slumped in a chair, depressed and irritable. Had the grass helped at all, I asked him. "Couldn't figure it out," he replied. "Too complicated." I opened up the baggie of marijuana and read the instructions left by his friend. The recipe, I admit, was a touch rococo:
King-size rizla papers
King-size rolling machine
Strips of thin card
Take about one-third of tobacco from a cigarette,
Mix with about half as much dope,
Which should previously have been de-seeded
And shredded between the fingertips.
Put mixture in rolling machine and roll.
Insert paper in rolling machine and place a rolled up strip
Of thin card at top of roller to serve as a filter.
Remove joint, light and smoke.
I threw out the instructions and rolled him some joints. It was good to see him get the giggles and he even showed some mild enthusiasm for Grandma's version of stuffed cabbage that I had learned to make via much trial and error. The recipe's not complicated but you need lots of time, both to make and cook the dish.
Half a pound of minced meat (hamburger)
Lemon juice, salt, sugar, two eggs
Large can of cooked tomatoes and ketchup
Soak cabbage in salt before boiling in water, until tender.
Use only the greenest leaves, remove stems or hard vein with scissors.
Put leaves on paper to absorb excess water.
Fill each leaf with mixture made of meat, eggs, salt, sugar, and lemon juice.
Put empty cabbage leaves on the bottom
Of a large casserole dish and fill with layers of filled leaves.
With each layer, add more sugar, lemon juice, canned tomatoes and ketchup.
Cook in oven at low heat for a long, long time.
For this recipe, even my mother was not able to come up with amounts. Sweet and sour is apparently a mystical experience. "Lots of sugar, lots of lemon juice," she'd say. "Just keep tasting, just keep tasting." I plan to, as long as I can.